Alice Lassaude is an incredibly funny writer with a James Beard award to show for it. She’s also the Meat Queen of Meat Fight, or more properly, the CEO of Meat Fight, Inc. Meat Fight is a barbecue competition unlike any other. It pits chefs against chefs, and leaves all the judging to a panel of pitmasters. Now in its sixth year, Meat Fight is also one of the biggest fundraisers for the National MS Society.
When Lassaude’s brother, Jim, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, she decided to do something about it. She turned a nascent backyard party into charity juggernaut benefitting MS research. Even as CEO, she takes no payment for organizing the event. It all goes to charity, and since 2011 that has meant over $300,000.
Meat Fight is coming up in two weeks, but it’s sold out. We’re sorry if you didn’t get a ticket. This interview isn’t planned to boost ticket sales, but rather to explain the importance of the best barbecue competition I’ve had the pleasure of being involved with. Lassaude called the event a type of “funlanthropy” in her TED Talk about Meat Fight, and she’s right. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had raising money.
Daniel Vaughn: Take us back to the beginning. Who really gets credit for Meat Fight?
Alice Lassaude: Laziness is to blame. Back in 2010, my husband, Mike, and I went over to our friend Greg Smith’s house and had one of the best briskets I’ve ever had in my life. I asked where the barbecue sauce was. He looked at me and said, “You don’t need sauce, idiot.” I ate it without the sauce and it was magical. It was the most wonderful brisket I’d had in my life. Mike and I went home and we were still talking about this brisket. It was like, “How do we get it again, but without having to leave our house?”
DV: You could always buy a smoker and a cookbook.
AL: But, laziness. We thought why not have a competition in our backyard? Greg would bring a brisket to our house for that and we had other friends who were acting like they knew how to smoke meats in their backyard. We set up an Evite, but needed a good name. Mike said “What about Meat Fight?” We both laughed our asses off and sent out the invitation. We had eight competitors.
DV: Who were the judges?
AL: My dad. Also Noah Bailey and Merritt Martin, who at the time were working for the Dallas Observer, so they were fancy.
DV: Who won?
AL: It was Greg, but that year my friend, Chris, got super pissed. All the awards went out and he lost. He walks up to my dad, both of them are men of intimidating size, and he said “What the hell? You didn’t eat half the food on my plate. You didn’t even touch the cole slaw.” My dad looked him in the eye and said, “Chris, this is Meat Fight, not cole slaw fight.” I thought Chris was going to hit him. He didn’t, but that’s when I realized it was a real thing. People were really into it. We knew we had to have this party again.
DV: You had it in your backyard again in 2011, and I was a judge. It was even bigger, but you had a new purpose, right?
AL: A few months after the first Meat Fight, my older brother, Jim, came over to my house. He told me he’d been diagnosed with MS. He was planning to do a 150 mile bike ride [for MS research], and wanted me to do it with him. In order to do the bike ride, each rider needed to raise a minimum of $300. We decided to do Meat Fight again and make it a fundraiser. I hate asking people for money, but people bought tickets, and we had even more contestants. We needed good judges so we asked Justin Fourton, Brian Luscher, and Jack Perkins to judge. The party was awesome.
DV: It was. I was there. Did you raise the money you needed for the bike ride?
AL: We raised $2,000, and we were really proud of that. It was the best. Then you and Brian Luscher came up to me at the end and said something like, “This was cute, but you do you want to actually raise some real money next year.” I didn’t know the answer because I’m not an event planner and I was drunk.
DV: I think my point was that it was the most fun I’d had at a barbecue competition, and people other than your friends would buy tickets if you made it bigger.
AL: So the next year we, or you, invited a bunch more judges like Aaron Franklin, Wayne Mueller, Nick Pencis, and Stephen Joseph, all judges who still attend. Brian Luscher said he could get more chefs to compete. We held it at Sons of Hermann Hall. 250 people came and we raised $20,000.
DV: You must have been blown away.
AL: Oh my God, it was insane. Tickets sold out in an hour and it was an event almost nobody had ever been to. I also remember thinking, we really can’t suck at this now. I thought it would take a while to sell all those tickets, and we really didn’t know how to be event planners. We also believed Sons of Hermann Hall when they told us an elevator would be built to the second floor before the event. It is for the MS Society, and some attendees were in wheelchairs. They didn’t build the elevator, not a big surprise in hindsight, but we carried a lady in her wheelchair upstairs to the event. We learned a lot and changed venues the following year.
DV: It was at Four Corners Brewery, right?
AL: Yes, and Nick Offerman was our celebrity judge.
DV: He was a great meat judge, and he also judged a beard competition that year.
AL: He did, and we’re bringing that back this year with the ceremonial tongs.
DV: How much did you raise?
AL: $50,000. In 2014 it went up to $100,000, and then $150,000 last year.
DV: Wow. So it’s all a failure unless you raise $200,000 this year.
AL: No! Don’t say that. I’ll be upset if we don’t raise more, but there’s no minimum. We just want to raise a lot of money for MS research.
DV: Who is the celebrity judge this year?
AL: Just a normal barbecue guy. It’s Pete Delkus, the meteorologist from WFAA in Dallas. A no-brainer. I feel like I can get the forecast locked in that day.
DV: I’ll be judging too, but who else will be up there?
AL: Nick, Stephen, and Wayne will be there. Jill Bergus from Lockhart Smokehouse, me, and also Kerry Bexley from Snow’s BBQ. If I could just get Tootsie to come with him. I’ve tried every year. If you could just…
DV: I’ll call her.
AL: Please do. And Tootsie, if you’re listening, please come to Meat Fight. [Tootsie Tomanetz has since agreed to judge at Meat Fight. Yeah!]
DV: When I’m there, I know it’s for charity, but it’s just a fun event. It doesn’t feel like a fundraiser.
AL: I think the thing that makes our event different is that it started as a fun party then became a charity event. We really focus on making it more like a kegger with lots of meat that also raises money.
DV: Meat Fight is the big annual event, but y’all have worked on other events throughout the year that also raise money for MS Research.
DV: Meat Bike? Is that what it sounds like?
AL: It’s not a bike made of meat, unfortunately. We started off with six riders on our bike team for that first MS bike ride. My brother is on the team and when we crossed the finish line one year he said, “This is such a cool experience. I want more people with MS to be able to experience this.” There are a lot who don’t think they can, but we wanted to get those people on the ride. We talked to the MS Society about starting that sort of program and we called it Meat Bike. We put some of the money from Meat Fight into buying bikes for people with MS. It’s a $750 road bike, helmet, shoes, jersey, everything you need to get started. The only requirement is that the recipient has MS. They also have meet us at a ride within the next calendar year and cross the starting line with our team. They don’t have to finish.
DV: How do they get the bikes?
AL: They meet us at Richardson Bike Mart to get all their stuff. A couple weeks ago we went to the ride in San Antonio with a couple newbies. One of the ladies went 150 miles over both days. It was awesome, and one of the reasons we do it is that regular cardio helps reduce the symptoms of MS.
DV: Even the rides are therapeutic?
AL: It also gives people with this diagnosis something else to talk about instead of just MS. We want to focus on hope and happiness and giving a better life to people with MS. One way we do that it donating to the National MS Society, and the other is here more locally with the Meat Bikes.
DV: How many bikes have you given away?
AL: 48 bikes.
DV: And when is the next ride?
AL: The Dallas ride is the first week in May.
DV: How many bikes will you give away for that event?
AL: That all depends on Meat Fight and how much money we raise. We raised enough for 11 bikes at the Meat Fight 1K event in August and 10 more on North Texas Giving Day. We had 25 people on the wait list for bikes, so we need to get through that list first. We’re hoping to get enough money at Meat Fight for 30 more.
DV: How much does the full bike kit cost?
AL: It’s $1,000 for the regular kit, and $2,500 for the three-wheeled bikes that some riders need because of balance issues. Some who suffer from MS have problems with balance.
DV: I’m sure we’ve all heard of MS, but for those who don’t know exactly what the disease is, can you help us out?
AL: MS is a neurological disease that causes lesions to show up at the base of your brain. Those lesions attack the brain, and everyone is affected differently. People lose the senses in parts of their body because their brain doesn’t talk to those parts of the body properly.
DV: Thanks for that succinct explanation. Meat Fight is obviously sold out this year. I’m sure folks out there might want to plan to attend next year to help you cause, but is there another way to donate to your cause?
AL: You can go to MeatFight.com and there’s a donate button. If you want the donation to go to Meat Bikes, just write that in the comment.
DV: What else do you have planned for the Meat Fight team?
AL: We have a few big things coming up, but nothing is set right now. For the foreseeable future, I’m just focused on Meat Fight. It’s coming up real quick.